Noise. It’s something we often can’t avoid. But for many workers, noise is something that isn’t just inevitable, it’s dangerous. Whether it’s in a manufacturing facility or on a construction site, employees are consistently exposed to dangerous levels of noise from engines, drills, pumps, stamping presses, conveyors, and much more.
Hearing Loss is Common—and Preventable
Did you know that hearing loss is the third-most common chronic physical condition affecting adults? According to the CDC, roughly 22 million workers are exposed to hazardous noise each year, and 12% of the U.S. working population has hearing difficulty, 58% of which is attributable to occupational exposures.
Pair this with 8% of the working population with tinnitus, 4% who have both hearing loss and tinnitus, and a healthy amount of the workforce is already facing permanent and irreparable damage. Worse still, studies show that hearing loss is also associated with cardiovascular disease, depression, balance problems, cognitive decline, dementia, falls, increased hospitalizations and health care costs, and mortality.
Often, however, people don’t even know they’re losing their hearing. Roughly 24% of people ages 20-69 who believe they have excellent hearing have measurable damage, and rarely bring it up with their doctors.
But it is preventable. You might not be able to protect them off the job——but when they’re on site, it’s your job to keep them safe.
With the right steps, you can protect your workers. In honor of National Protect Your Hearing Month, we would, today, like to discuss the basic factors that cause hearing loss in the workplace and explore some of the ways you can protect workers.
Protecting Workers from Hearing Loss Starts with Sound Understanding
Understandably, there is a lot that goes into worker protection. But this all starts with an understanding of noise. Knowing how sound is measured and where the noise is coming from is the first step in employing controls and protection.
Noise is measured in units of pressure, called decibels, which match the perception of loudness by the human ear. On the decibel scale, the smallest audible sound is 0 dB, and decibels are measured in base 10, meaning:
- A sound 10 times more powerful is 10 dB.
- A sound 100 times more powerful than near total silence is 20 dB.
- A sound 1,000 times more powerful than near total silence is 30 dB.
To put this in context, a whisper is roughly 15 dB and a normal conversation is around 60 dB. But once noise exceeds 85-90 dB—approximately the sound of a lawn mower— constant exposure will begin to cause damage.
Noise in the Workplace: Permissible Exposure Limits and Maximum Time
Rather than something direct and egregious—fall protection, hazard communication, scaffolding, and the like—workplace noise is continuous and measured across time. Noted by OSHA in 29 CFR 1910.95(b)(2), all worker exposures to noise should be controlled below a level equivalent to 85 dBA for eight hour durations to minimize occupational noise induced hearing loss. They present the permissible levels and maximum time an employee should be exposed during a workday in Table G-16.
|Duration per day, hours||Sound level dBA slow response|
Noise in Context: Tools and Industries
As mentioned above, lawn mowers run at approximately the maximum dB rating before steps need to be taken. Similarly, a lot of the tools employees use every day exceed this. Though no longer updated, the NIOSH Power Tools Sound Power Dataset offered a deep look into the common tools used by workers. For example, did you know that the average circular saw ranges from 103-113 dB, impact wrenches from 101-111 dB, and reciprocating saws from 102-112 dB?
At manufacturers, many employees face constant exposure. The World Health Organization cites data from the Canadian Center for Occupational Health and Safety noting the average and peak decibel levels in different industries. For example, the average brewery operates at a 96 dB average and peaks at 117 dB, shipyards range from 92-134 dB, and paper mills average at 90 dB with a maximum of 130 dB.
Added to this, farming and construction are both well-known areas of noise exposure. A tractor without a cab can start causing hearing loss after two hours and a grain dryer can start causing irreparable damage in less than a minute. For construction, dangerous noise is everywhere. Noise levels associated with heavy construction equipment range from 80 to 120 dBA and power tools commonly used in construction produce exposures up to 115 dBA.
How to Reduce Noise Exposure in the Workplace
So now that you know the common sources of noise and the dangers these present, how can you take steps to protect your workforce?
Assess Risk and Audit Your Facility
Like any occupational hazard, this all starts with a risk assessment. Monitor and document the noise levels of your facility, determining where employees are and compare it to the exposure limits. Called a Hearing Loss Prevention Audit, this involves the collection of data and answers a variety of questions about the facility.
For example, an audit is going to make you look at the purpose of the hazard inducing equipment, discuss the risks with employees, and create a data policy that includes noise maps and plans. NIOSH has released its own app to help you measure, and you can learn more here. From here, look at the hierarchy.
Embrace the Hierarchy of Controls
The Hierarchy of Controls is the natural progression of protection, helping safety professionals determine how to implement feasible and effective controls of occupational hazards.
The hierarchy progresses from ‘high protection, ideal, but low feasibility’ solutions including engineering and administrative controls to ‘least effective, but most likely the only option’ in PPE. When applying it to noise exposure, move down the following:
Elimination and Substitution: Remove or Replace the Hazard
The most unlikely control—elimination—is also the most effective. This consists of eliminating the source (i.e. shutting down a machine that would otherwise require protection). Substitution, the second most effective control, is slightly more practical—but would require a significant investment in new tools, machinery, or the like.
This is part of the buy quiet movement, a long-term shift in purchasing that makes the facility less risky. From the equipment to the plant, this is one way to cost-effectively substitute hazards without making a significant and immediate change.
HSE Blog recommends obtaining information on noise emission (for example, data on sound power level or sound pressure level at the operator position) from the manufacturer, importer or supplier of plant and comparing it to determine the quietest plant.
Engineering Controls: Focus on the Source
Likely more plausible than the first two, engineering controls are meant to control the hazard. Engineering controls require making physical changes to equipment to reduce sound levels. From something as simple as improving maintenance to enclosing the source, these are sometimes plausible and generally effective. Learn more about some of the techniques used to modify equipment from the CDC Industrial Control Manual, which explores a variety of ways to approach engineering controls.
Administrative Controls: Help the People
The next control on the hierarchy, administrative controls are changes in the workplace that reduce or eliminate the worker exposure to noise. Often, this looks at something like distancing workers from the hazard. This works to an extent, with noise decreased by 6dB for each doubling of space between source and employee.
Other examples of administrative controls include changes to scheduling or workforce. Choosing to operate noisy machinery on lighter shifts to limit the number of people exposed, rotating staff to limit the amount of time they are exposed to noise, and restricting worker access to noisy areas.
Awareness: A Sometimes-Cited Control Focused on Education
Though not officially recognized by OSHA, awareness helps your people understand the risks and know how to avoid the hazards. Defined as “educating workers on the hazards and providing information on making safe decisions,” awareness in theory exists as an extension of administrative controls.
That said, many are embracing awareness as a control. Despite the fact that awareness methods often have no impact on the severity of injury and have no impact on the hazard, think about how many employees are exposed to unnecessary noise levels because they were passing through an area they had no business being in, or because there was no signage informing them of the hazard?
Personal Protective Equipment: Your Last Line of Defense
Needless to say, the most cost effective and often most practical means of mitigating this exposure is with the use of personal protective equipment.
Earplugs and other hearing protection are meant to reduce the amount of noise that reaches an employee. That said, PPE is only as effective when it’s used properly. According to EHS Today, with so many different types of earplugs in existence, it’s important to supply employees with ones that not only provide effective protection, but enough comfort that employees will use.
Take PPE seriously. If an earplug isn’t going to fit, it’s not going to protect employees. If hearing protection is uncomfortable, employees are going to balk at the use. EHS Today breaks down the pros and cons of each type of hearing PPE here.
Protect Your Employees, Protect Your Business
Many companies pride themselves on their workforce. But a huge part of ensuring productivity and demonstrating commitment to employees is to take steps to protect them. Acadia’s Virtual Loss Control team has a variety of safety training materials available for policyholders. These resources include online trainings, videos, sample safety policies, toolbox talks and more. Our loss control staff is available to help answer any questions relating to safety and risk management concerns, including occupational noise exposure. Our Virtual Loss Control team can be reached by calling 207-874-5701, or emailing [email protected].”
As a leading provider of insurance for companies throughout the Northeast, our team of agents are ready and able to help you find a plan that works for you.
We’ve developed tailored insurance programs for businesses of all types and sizes, so whether you own a construction firm or a clothing store, you can be sure to receive coverage suitable for your business.
Acadia Insurance is pleased to share this material with its customers. Please note, however, that nothing in this document should be construed as legal advice or the provision of professional consulting services. This material is for general informational purposes only, and while reasonable care has been utilized in compiling this information, no warranty or representation is made as to accuracy or completeness.